Losing the Boss: Al Horford Out Indefinitely with Torn Right Pectoral
The Hawks suffered a major blow Friday learning that star center Al Horford had suffered a complete tear of his right pectoral muscle late in the fourth quarter of the Hawks’ 127-125 double-overtime win over the Cavaliers in Cleveland on Thursday night. Horford tore his left pectoral 11 games into the lockout shortened 2011-12 season, and he missed the rest of the 55 games of the regular season prior to returning for the first-round playoff series against the Celtics (January 11 til May 6).
Horford was having a career year on the offensive end of the floor, averaging 18.6 points while shooting 56.7% from the floor and had a 58.8% TS%. Along with his great scoring output, Horford was averaging 8.4 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.5 blocks, and 0.9 steals in just 33 minutes per game. Horford had a 24.6% Usage percentage and had an offensive rating of 104.4 and a defensive rating of 100.7 for a +3.7 net rating prior to the injury, and was seen by many as a lock for the All-Star team in the Eastern Conference. His defense at the rim and in the post was terrific all season as he anchored the Hawks’ steadily improving defense, while still being the featured star of the red-hot offense.
Now, the Hawks must find a way to move forward without Horford for what will likely be the majority of the regular season, if not the season in its entirety.
After getting to 16-13 after their win over the Cavs, the Hawks are solidly in the third seed in the Eastern Conference with just over a third of the season played. The East has been bad overall, and the Hawks, even without Horford, appear to be in play for a playoff spot, but their chances for home-court in the first round take a significant hit.
Moving forward, the Hawks will play a platoon of players in Horford’s absence at the five, with Gustavo Ayon, Elton Brand, and Pero Antic splitting time. Who will start in place of Horford is still yet to be determined, but looking at how Coach Bud has used his rotations earlier this season, I would expect to see Ayon take the starting role, at least initially, in order to keep Brand and Antic as parts of the bench unit.
Replacing Horford’s production is not something any one player on the Hawks will be able to do. The three-player center rotation will need to pick up some of the slack, particularly on the defensive end, where rim protection will be a question mark. Ayon has really struggled defending the rim, and his lack of lateral quickness is not ideal for the Hawks’ defensive system, especially against pick-and-rolls.
Brand has been an excellent defender and has played well on the offensive end, but at his age, Bud will likely try to keep his minutes relatively limited. Conserving Brand will be important for the Hawks’ long-term success this season, but I would expect his minutes to get stretched out more and more as the season wears on, especially when playing against better offensive centers.
Antic provides spacing and post defense, but is not a proficient post player on offense or help defender. He’s shown that he is an excellent facilitator, and has taken over the role as the Hawks’ designated inbounder on late game ATO sets. Antic’s length and strength make him a solid post-defender, but his instincts and timing in help defense leave much to be desired.
Paul Millsap‘s load will undoubtedly see an increase with Horford out. Millsap is averaging 16.8 points per game with 8.3 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.6 steals, and 1 block per game in 33.1 minutes. He is shooting 49.2% from the field with a 56.2% TS% and 23.3% Usage percentage. His usage rate figures to go up a good amount considering the replacements for Horford are not as skilled or well balanced offensively.
Millsap will become the primary pick-and-roll/pop player for the Hawks, which has been deadly, and it will be interesting to see how the effectiveness of the Hawks’ pick-and-roll/pop game will be effected by Horford’s absence. His presence, not just as the screener, is huge to their success, so the Hawks will have to find others to pick up the slack. With Horford and Millsap on the court together, the Hawks have a +3.7 net rating in 675 minutes. The two quickly bonded on the court and learned how to space the floor together and their defensive impact was positive and was improving as they developed chemistry together.
The frontcourt combination that figures to be the most successful is the Millsap/Brand combo. In 144 minutes this season, the two have a net rating of +7.4 (108.3 offensive/100.9 defensive). They have complimented each other well, and both are able to space the floor and also be effective in the post. Millsap has not played more than 100 minutes with any other Hawks big.
Replacing Horford is impossible. His production and leadership at both ends will be missed severely. He was one of the leaders of the team on and off the court. However, the next man will have to step up, and try to fill the hole left by the Boss. The Hawks’ will have to understand that no one player will replace Horford, and, like in 2011-12, the load will have to be spread among the entire group. Millsap, Kyle Korver, and Jeff Teague figure to be the ones asked to pick up the slack on offense, while the platoon of bigs that will take Al’s place will have to give the Hawks quality defensive efforts in the paint.
The loss of Horford is a big blow to what was looking like an extremely promising Hawks’ season, and the team looked to be playing its best, most consistent ball of the season over the past two weeks. Now, it’s back to the drawing board as Coach Bud and his staff have to retool their lineups and rotations in an effort to keep the Hawks in the race for the three and four seeds in the Eastern Conference, which will be a difficult accomplishment, without the Boss.